Eighty years ago, the Spanish Civil War was entering its bloody end game. After two and a half years of slaughter, the Republic was on the verge of collapse, its territory split in two by Franco’s armies.
A key part of those last desperate weeks was played out in the hills behind Alicante, at the secret headquarters of the Republican government led by Prime Minister Dr Juan Negrín.
The country finca (mansion) of El Poblet lies just outside the town of Elda, close to the main Madrid-Alicante motorway, completely hidden from speeding traffic by a thick pine wood.
These days, it’s an unremarkable villa reached via a narrow track, surrounded by crumbling outbuildings and overlooking rather scrubby farmland. But in early 1939, this was the hideaway from which Dr Negrín and his cabinet tried to run the war during a fateful ten days in Spanish history.
An odd place, you might think, to put any government, never mind one fighting for its very survival. Some of Negrín’s people thought so at the time.
But the place was well connected. The main road north to Madrid and south to the port of Alicante ran nearby. The railway station of Elda-Petrer was a short drive away, and lay on the main line to Madrid; trains still speed by just a few hundred metres in front of the house itself.
Madrid and Valencia were both far too close to the battlefronts for safety. And if the Republican government wanted to stage a fighting retreat to the Mediterranean ports, Elda was quite well placed. Crucially, there was also an airfield at El Fondó (aka El Hondón or El Mañar), a few kilometres away, just the other side of the little town of Monóvar. If the politicians needed to get away in a hurry, El Poblet was actually not a bad place to be.
Negrín and his cabinet came here on February 25, 1939, just a month before the civil war ended. For security reasons, El Poblet was codenamed “Posición Yuste”, and it was guarded by around 100 experienced soldiers, armed with machine guns.
At the same time, the Communist Party leadership – including La Pasionaria, the fiery Dolores Ibárruri – took over a collection of chalets in nearby Petrer, codenamed “Posición Dakar” (see the map at the end of this post). By that stage of the war, Negrín’s government was heavily reliant on Communist support, both military and political. Today, ‘Dakar’ lies in an anonymous side street, just across the road from an Aldi supermarket.
Army HQ occupied Colegio Padre Manjón, a school in Elda. The spooks of the security service SIM (Servicio de Inteligencia Militar) based themselves in a couple of houses in Ciudad Vergel, a neighbourhood in Elda.
As the politicians and their staffs moved in, they must have had few illusions about the eventual outcome of the war. If they had, the news a couple of days later would have shattered them.
On February 27, Britain and France recognised Franco as the government of Spain (it’s often forgotten that the Nationalists were actually rebels against the democratically elected Republic). The same day, the Republican President, Manuel Azaña – already in exile, in France – chose to resign. Both were hammer blows.
For the Prime Minister and his cabinet at El Poblet/Posición Yuste, the question was: should the Republic fight on, against odds that were increasingly hopeless? Would that at least buy some time, maybe to allow more refugees to escape from Alicante and the other ports on Spain’s east coast? Or maybe give the Republic some leverage in any peace negotiations with Franco? Or in the hope that the international situation would change in the Republic’s favour? Historians have been arguing about all this ever since.
All debate went out of the window on March 5, thanks to a military coup against the Negrín government launched by Colonel Segismundo Casado, a senior Republican army commander.
Casado wanted the war to end immediately and thought he was just the man to do a deal with Franco. He accused Negrín of planning a Moscow-inspired Communist takeover and fighting on to the bitter end. Interestingly, Casado himself had been at El Poblet for talks with Negrín only three days before launching his revolt.
The British historian Paul Preston – perhaps the best writer today on the Civil War – is caustic about Casado in The Last Days of the Spanish Republic.
“It is certainly the case”, writes Preston, “that (Casado’s) behaviour during the last months of the Civil War suggest a self-serving arrogance which fed the ambition to go down in history as the man who ended the war”. Certainly he had been negotiating secretly with contacts in the Francoist capital of Burgos for some time before staging his coup.
The effect of the revolt was dramatic, not least for those at El Poblet. Negrín and his cabinet had been meeting to agree what he would say in a radio broadcast the next day, March 6. Negrín planned to argue for continued resistance in the hope of exacting a promise of no reprisals from Franco. According to Preston, the El Poblet meeting had ended and the ministers had sat down to dinner, when Casado and the conspirators broadcast news of their coup from Madrid at midnight.
Angry telephone exchanges followed between Negrín and Casado. Accusation and counter-accusation flew, but within hours, it became clear that large parts of the Republican army and navy, wearied by an unwinnable war, were siding with the coup plotters.
For the politicians at Yuste and Dakar, that meant getting out fast before they were arrested by Casado sympathisers and handed over to Franco. The Communists – Casado’s particular enemy – were in special danger. The next day, March 6, Negrín travelled from El Poblet to Posición Dakar to say goodbye in person to them.
La Pasionaria and the Party leadership then made the short drive from Petrer to the little airfield at El Fondó, near Monóvar. Some say she paused long enough to sit beneath a pine tree, sip a coffee and leaf through a book. A nice story, but unlikely. With the Nationalist air forces in control of the skies and the Casado forces not far away, the getaway was probably all a bit of a scramble.
Once aboard their Dragon Rapide biplane, they took off for French-controlled Oran in Algeria, a relatively short hop across the Mediterranean.
Pasionaria was to spend almost 40 years in exile in the Soviet Union. She managed to outlive Franco though, and returned to Spain in 1977 at the age of 81.
Back at El Fondó airfield, with Casado soldiers closing in, Negrín and his ministers took off around 3pm in two Douglas DC-2 aircraft of the Republican airline LAPE, and headed for Toulouse in France. Negrín never returned to Spain, dying in exile in France in 1956.
According to one local story, the taxi driver who had driven the group to the airfield became unexpectedly rather prosperous afterwards; the rumour was that a suitcase stuffed with gold had been left behind in the haste to get away.
The airfield itself is long gone, returned to vineyards a few years after the war. The only evidence of that remarkable day in March 1939 is a small commemorative obelisk and some helpful information plaques detailing El Fondó’s bit part in Spanish history.
A few metres away is an air raid shelter built for the troops who manned the aerodrome; it’s still accessible and in surprisingly good condition. More visitor info (in Spanish) here.
With the Republican government gone, the end came quickly. Casado’s hope of a peace settlement without reprisals proved a pipe dream. Unsurprisingly, Franco insisted on unconditional surrender. Vicious reprisals followed.
Casado himself fled to the port of Gandia, up the coast from Alicante. On March 30, he boarded the British Royal Navy cruiser HMS Galatea, and went to France and then London. He stayed in London throughout the Second World War, even broadcasting for the BBC under the name “Coronel Juan de Padilla”, fuelling suspicions that the British government had played a sinister part in Casado’s coup.
On April 1, Franco declared victory. El Poblet’s ten days at the centre of things were over. There was to be one more brief flirtation with power; in the late 1990s, there was plenty of press speculation that the Belgian government wanted to buy El Poblet as a refuge for the brutal dictator of Zaire, President Mobutu. True or not, thankfully nothing came of it.
Despite its historic significance, El Poblet isn’t open to visitors and remains private property.
For years, campaigners have been trying to get the place declared a “Bien de Interés Cultural” (BIC) – an official cultural asset. A BIC declaration would give it some protection, and maybe some public access. This year (2019), it looks as if they’ve been successful, so let’s see what happens.
- For more on this period, Paul Preston’s “The Last Days of the Spanish Republic” is excellent. Spanish historian Juan Ramón Valero Escandell is a fount of knowledge on everything to do with Negrín, El Poblet and Elda-Petrer.
- Check out also the remarkable story of the Stanbrook; how an elderly British cargo ship rescued thousands of refugees from the Alicante dockside. More here.
- Alicante suffered greatly from air raids during the war; see this guide to the landmarks still visible 80 years later.
Acknowledgements to the Comisión Civica para la Recuperación de la Memoria Historica (Commission for the Recovery of Historical Memory) in Alicante, which keeps alive the history of the Civil War and the repression that followed.
© Guy Pelham 2019